ACLU Demands That Northfield School District Stop Unconstitutional Web Filtering Of LGBT Content

Affiliate: ACLU of Minnesota
May 2, 2011 5:45 pm

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ACLU of Minnesota
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Demand Letter Sent As Part Of Organization’s “Don’t Filter Me” Initiative

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St. Paul, Minn – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Minnesota demanded that school officials at Northfield School District stop viewpoint-based censorship of web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The ACLU has sent similar letters to schools across the country as part of the organization’s national “Don’t Filter Me” initiative, which seeks to combat illegal censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems.

The campaign asks students to check to see if web content geared toward LGBT communities – a frequent target of censorship in schools – is blocked by their schools’ web browsers, and then report instances of censorship to the ACLU LGBT Project.

”LGBT youth face a lot of challenges growing up in today’s society. The websites that are being filtered by Northfield are important resources for LGBT teens to go to for support and help, it is unfortunate that they would block these sites,” said ACLU-MN attorney Teresa Nelson.

Earlier this year, the North Kansas City School District unblocked websites identified by the ACLU and removed the filter that screened the sites out in the first place after a student reported illegal filtering. Another school in New Jersey voluntarily removed its anti-LGBT filter after receiving student complaints and an open records request from the ACLU.

“There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using an anti-LGBT filter,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “This is not a case where overbroad filters are accidentally filtering out LGBT websites. These filters are designed to discriminate and are programmed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or inappropriate. Public schools have a duty to provide students with viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”

When used by a public school, programs that block all LGBT content violate First Amendment rights to free speech, as well as the Equal Access Act, which requires equal access to school resources for all extracurricular clubs. This means that gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups must the same access to national organizational websites that help them to function, just as other groups such as the Key Club and the chess club are able to access their national websites. By blocking access to LGBT websites, schools deny helpful information to gay-straight alliances and other support groups that could be vital for troubled LGBT youth who either don’t have access to the Internet at home or do not feel safe accessing such information on their home computers.

Since launching the “Don’t Filter Me” initiative, the ACLU has identified several web-filter companies whose products are designed to filter out LGBT websites. Some of these include:

The Bluecoat software used by the Vineland School District in New Jersey and the Prince William County Schools in Virginia has a specialized filter called “LGBT.”
The Websense software used by Columbus City Schools in Ohio, Wayne-Westland Community Schools in Michigan and the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District in Texas has a filter called “Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual Issues.”
The Lightspeed software used by the Northfield School District in Minnesota, the North Kansas City School District in Missouri and the Downingtown School District in PA include LGBT sites in a filter called “education.lifestyles,” which is defined as “Education about lifestyles — gay, lesbian, alternate.”

A video showing students how to test whether or not their school is illegally filtering content, and providing instructions for reporting censorship can be seen here:

Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out a form at:

More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here:

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